As the United States neared election day, Secretary of State John Kerry announced he would take a historic trip to the massive, frozen seventh continent: Antarctica. The goal was to see firsthand the place that perhaps more than any other has climate scientists worried about melting ice and rising sea levels.
The idea was that the secretary, being the highest ranking U.S. official ever to visit Antarctica, would then take that experience back to the international climate meetings now underway in Marrakech, Morocco, where he is slated to speak this week on the dangers of a warming planet.
Somewhere along the way, though, the election of Donald Trump sort of shattered that thought glacier — leaving Kerry with a more complicated message, by any stretch. It would now appear that when he arrives in Marrakech, the associated delegates and leaders will be much more immediately worried about Trump’s plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. (The melting glaciers can wait a while.)
Nonetheless, the Secretary of State does appear to have had a remarkable trip. He stopped at the U.S.’s McMurdo Station, near the Ross Sea — which is partially covered by the enormous Ross Ice Shelf, a floating ice body as big as France and the largest ice shelf in the world — and took helicopter tours of spectacular features like the McMurdo Dry valleys, an extremely cold and arid region that is of great scientific interest.
“Scientists consider the Dry Valleys to be the closest of any terrestrial environment to Mars,” NASA explains.
On that excursion, Kerry saw Blood Falls, a bizarre glacier that looks reddish because of the combination of iron and very saline water spilling out of it:
More gravely, he got briefed on just how bad the situation is with the West Antarctic ice sheet (whose most vulnerable regions are far away from McMurdo station and not something he could visit on the trip). It is melting from below as a reorganization of the surrounding ocean has delivered warm, salty water to the bases of its partially submerged glaciers.
The West Antarctic ice sheet, if lost entirely, could raise seas by some 10 feet. The United States and the United Kingdom have recently announced a joint mission to study its weakest point, Thwaites glacier, in the coming years.
Kerry also reportedly spoke to a large group of scientists in Antarctica, talking about the danger of climate change, but without explicitly mentioning the election of Trump. However, Kerry did say, “We need to get more of a movement going. We need to get more people to engage.”
It’s not clear if the secretary of state was nodding to the Bill McKibbens of the world, environmentalists who are likely to turn to more grassroots activism against fossil fuel projects, like the Dakota Access Pipeline, as the mechanisms of policy become unavailable to them. Their “keep it in the ground” movement is likely to grow in force if President-elect Trump carries out his campaign pledges to unleash the oil, gas, and coal industries and withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
When Kerry reaches Marrakech this week and addresses the world, he will indeed have seen firsthand what few others ever will. But the political ground will have entirely shifted since he left.
On Monday, Reuters reported that the incoming Trump administration was exploring a fast-track way to get out of the Paris agreement, which might include ditching the entire United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the U.S. joined in 1992 under George H.W. Bush, back when these things weren’t very controversial. That could mean throwing out over two decades of U.S. international climate diplomacy.
So yes, Antarctica is melting, and with Kerry’s visit, and research over the last few years, this was just starting to come to broader attention. But if we revert back to debating whether it’s even worth doing anything about climate change, that may become a footnote.
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